According to Statista, the application is used in 154 countries and its users had topped 755 million by the third quarter of 2022. Researchers for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that TikTok was used by four per cent of the social media platform users they surveyed in 2022, up from just one percent in 2020.
This pretty much applies to Egypt. Although the application has become associated with a number of court cases, which has put some people off using it, not just as a content creator but also as a content consumer, TikTok still attracts large and diverse segments of the population. An estimated 22 million people use the app in Egypt today.
According to a survey by the Egyptian government’s Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) conducted on a sample of adults over 18, TikTok ranked third among the social networking sites they used. Facebook (or Meta) was used by 95.5 per cent, Instagram by 54.6 per cent and TikTok by 45.5 per cent.
Like other networking sites, TikTok reveals another “hidden” side of social interactions, outlooks and opinions held by a significant portion of internet users who now amount to a little over half the population.
The question of how the government should respond to TikTok has stirred heated controversy among those concerned with public affairs. Some members of parliament are calling for banning the application, claiming that it is frequently “misused” and “causes social alienation”.
The counter argument holds that instances of “misuse” do not justify a ban. There are people who misuse the internet, cars and cameras, yet we do not ban those things.
It has also been argued that, as was the case with the spread of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube at the beginning of the millennium, TikTok users in Egypt will automatically develop a kind of digital awareness. Therefore, there is no need at all for a government policy on TikTok.
The opinion is sound, theoretically. Practically, however, the absence of government policies on social media since the outset of the millennium has helped to spread practices that were detrimental to the young and to various aspects of Egyptian society at the time. Measures have since been taken to address some problems and we are still exploring ways to manage others.
Another view holds that the government should approach the question of TikTok in an objective and systematic way, taking into account changes in society, on the one hand and, on the other, safeguarding Egypt’s interests as they concern its relations with China and other countries that export and manufacture important technologies.
In favour of this view is the fact that there is a broad and growing range of TikTok users. While it is particularly popular among Generation Z, the “zoomers” between 18 and 24, its ease of use makes it suitable for younger people, including under 13 years old, while its many functions appeal to content makers among adults, from millennials upwards, as well as to private enterprises of all sizes that use if for publicity.
It is worth noting that the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta and Ministry of Youth and Sports have accounts on TikTok. In fact, it is an excellent idea as their channels make their diverse services available, which contributes to shaping awareness and strengthening Egyptian identity, to segments of society that might not have access to it through other media platforms. Dar Al-Ifta’s official TikTok channel offers information on Islamic outlooks, tenets and fatwas on sometimes obscure matters concerning worship, personal conduct or social interactions.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports has gone a step further. In addition to launching its official TikTok channel, it has signed a cooperation protocol with the TikTok company to launch a TikTok Creator Hub programme in Egypt. The initiative aims to help young people develop the skills and know-how to use TikTok and other social media platform in a conscientious way to spread awareness and foster innovative ideas and solutions on issues of importance to their communities. The ministry, in partnership with TikTok, organised a content creators competition on this platform and the Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi made a point of meeting with the competitors and winners, or “TikTok ” as he called them, to give them encouragement.
Communicating with TikTok influencers and content makers has become a practice among government officials elsewhere in the world. It enables governments to establish a presence in new spaces they had been unable to reach through conventional media. They can simultaneously develop an online discourse that helps them shape and influence views and attitudes through this platform. Surely this is preferable to being cut off, with all the unforeseen repercussions that could have.
The writer is head of the Security Research Department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly